We go into ministry because we love God and want to serve others. We also go into ministry because we enjoy attention, encouragement, and the words, “Job well done!” Even though we don’t talk much about the latter, I firmly believe God uses these things to help propel us into His work. There’s nothing wrong with loving every aspect of ministry, including those that get us attention and praise. Not everyone has the ability to speak in front of groups of people, facilitate projects, and handle the extensive behind-the-scenes world of ministry that doesn’t get enough attention. If you’re a minister, and you’re doing everything to the best of your ability, then you are doing well. No doubts about your ministry work? I will congratulate you and pray, because I know you are hiding your struggles. We all feel, at some point or another, like a failure in ministry.
If you’re anything like me, you know that despite your best efforts, there’s often a little, nagging voice that creeps up in your head, telling you that you are a failure in ministry. Whether it’s due to real or perceived situations, I think it’s safe to say most ministers feel like they don’t measure up in some way. The very things that propel us to be great in ministry – crowds, attention, praise, and acknowledgement – can also become the very things that make us feel like we are failing. It’s easy to look around and think we don’t measure up or aren’t as good as someone else. This is further complicated if we have moral, emotional, mental issues that we fail to properly address.
Ministry doesn’t come with a singular handbook to success. It does, however, come with Scripture. Within Scripture’s records, we find numerous stories of leaders – those good, bad, and indifferent – and failures, successes, and perceived failures in ministry. Here, we are going to find encouragement for our darkest days through Scripture’s leaders. In the process, we will also look at things to consider, remember, and do in difficult times that will help you combat any thoughts that make you feel like you are a failure in ministry.
Sometimes feelings are just feelings, not failures
I hate feelings. I dislike them so much, I did a podcast about this with my friend, Minister Nik Lewis earlier this year (check it out!). A perfectly wonderful day can be abruptly ruined by feelings I don’t easily understand. Because I don’t understand them well, it can be difficult for me to handle them, especially when they attack me at the core of my perceptions of ministry performance.
Feelings are complicated, messy, and confusing. They matter. If you feel like a failure in ministry, it will impact the way you approach your ministry life until those feelings change.
Feelings, however, are just feelings. They are responses to circumstances, situations, brain chemistry, ennui, and sometimes nothing at all. They come and they go. Feelings can lie to us about our realities, and feelings can change. As quickly as we feel one way about our ministries, we can feel differently about them in a short period of time. More than anything else, feelings can reveal personal issues we need to address.
Keep feelings in perspective
The Prophet Elijah had a show-stopping ministry. He’s probably best-known for facilitating the biggest bonfire of the year, single-handedly showing up the prophets of Ba’al with an incredible fire cast on saturated wood, surrounded by water. Where do we find Elijah after performing this kind of miracle? Did he decide to take a well-deserved vacation? Did he brag before his cohorts? Nah. He ran away and hid in a cave.
Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep. (1 Kings 19:3-5, NIV)
Elijah’s feelings were just that – feelings. His ministry wasn’t ineffective, and he had no reason to desire death. He certainly had no reason to compare himself to his ancestors. While his feelings were real, their prompts were not. They were nothing more than temporary emotions that distorted reality.
I don’t advise ignoring feelings, but I do advise keeping them in proper perspective. If nothing in your situation speaks to your feelings, you’re probably not a failure in ministry. Bad days happen; take some time, sit the cave, have a little nap (and a snack, as the text details a few verses later) and keep going when the bad moments pass.
Stop measuring your ministry against those of others
When I measure myself against others, the fact that I am still here is often a success by itself. Most of the people I worked with in past years are no longer in ministry. There’s always those one or two, however, that at least “seem” to be doing better in their ministries via a few pictures on social media. Looking them up will draw out the feeling I am a failure in ministry, put me in a bad mood for at least half a day and make me wonder why: Why doesn’t my ministry grow faster? How come everything seems to take so long for me? Why don’t I have the level of support or popularity someone else does? Why, why, why?
We all have the temptation to look up people we’ve known and see if their ministries are “doing better” than ours. What I mean by “doing better” is simple: We want to know if they have more people than we do, more events, more money, or are more “famous” than we are. Whether the news makes us happy or not, we are missing the point. We’re comparing ourselves and our work to a standard that isn’t our assignment, nor is it any of our business.
This is a bad idea for a few reasons. The first is because if whoever you look up is “doing better” than you, seeing that isn’t going to make you feel better. The second is because your ministry isn’t theirs. You can’t judge your timetable, your standards, and your expectations according to what someone else is doing.
Learn to mind your own business
It’s not a huge secret that the apostles Peter and John didn’t get along very well. In John 21:20-23, we can see Jesus’ response to Peter’s comparative jealousy:
Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”) When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?”
Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow Me.” Because of this, the rumor spread among the believers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?” (NIV)
Peter’s ministry was Peter’s ministry; John’s ministry was John’s ministry. Your ministry is your ministry. It’s the vision and purpose God has given to you. In no way, shape, or form is your ministry required to look like anyone else’s. If anything, your ministry should be unique, because it is your called and appointed service for the Lord. In other words: We follow Christ in ministry, not someone else. Whatever Jesus wants to do through someone else is a matter for them, not us. It is far more advantageous for us to focus on where we are at, even if it’s not where we want to be. We won’t move forward if we can’t attend to immediate matters at hand.
Avoid idolizing ministry
This particular topic is an “ouch” for many ministers. When we come up in ministry, we are given the message that we should be willing to do anything and everything to make our ministries work. Saying “no” is taboo. We are given the message that the difference between a successful ministry and an unsuccessful one is going above and beyond for our leaders, the people we serve, and those we work with, at all times. If we do this long enough, we are led to believe we will get fantastic results.
I followed these precepts for a number of years. It’s safe to say I led others without many boundaries. Between the constant demands of ministry, the pull of my time and attention, and my complicated home life, I wound up burnt out, emotionally broken, and spiritually uncertain as to what I wanted to do in my future. I even went through a period where I questioned if I wanted to be in ministry anymore. Too many years of pleasing people more than I pleased God, trying to network with the right groups, and not having the right support in my life left me empty.
The boundary line
I’ve worked with enough ministers to know my story isn’t uncommon. It’s tempting to forget that our ministry comes from God, not the popular accolades of others. We walk a fine line between service and people-pleasing, and finding that boundary line is the difference between running our race for God and running ourselves into the ground.
“Both prophet and priest are godless;
even in My temple I find their wickedness,”
declares the Lord…
“Do not listen to what the prophets are prophesying to you;
they fill you with false hopes.
They speak visions from their own minds,
not from the mouth of the Lord. (Jeremiah 23:11,16, NIV)
I doubt the majority of false prophets and priests of old started their ministries in disobedience to God. They, much like the rest of us, sought to do good. The longer they were in ministry, the further they got from the truth. It was easier to tell people what they wanted to hear and to indulge in wickedness than it was to stand for what was right and feel like a failure in ministry. They didn’t want to be the one nobody liked, the one who caused controversy, the one that made life miserable for the people. In other words: they idolized the people, which led them into other forms of idolatry.
We avoid idolizing ministry when we maintain boundaries (these are a good thing; see the way that God set boundaries all throughout Scripture with His people), embrace accountability, know when – and who – to ask for help, and maintain self-care. (We will elaborate on a few of these things shortly.)
Don’t ignore your relationship with God
Ministry is God’s work which means you talk about, think about, and relate things about God all day long. When your day is over, sometimes the last thing you want to do is read the Bible, read a spiritual book, study Scripture, talk about God, think about church, or even pray. These things are all part of the daily tasks of ministry work. We do them for the good of others…so doing them for ourselves sometimes loses something in the translation.
While some leaders might consider this the end of the world, I’ve been there one too many times to feel that way. The spiritual demands of ministry can be exhausting. Yes, it’s essential ministers have competent, dedicated people to pray for them and their work. It’s also essential ministers learn how God speaks to them, with the end goal of finding a personal spiritual rhythm.
Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, NIV)
For those moments when you can’t study another passage or read another thing, I find it most practical to put the words above into application:
- Rejoice (find joy in God again rather than focusing on feeling like a failure in ministry)
- Pray continually (find a way to communicate with God as natural as breathing)
- Give thanks (find something to be grateful for that is not related to ministry).
Be accountable as necessary to avoid failure in ministry
People love watching leaders fall. I go as far as to classify such as a fetish. When people are jealous of someone’s position, the idea that no one is untouchable resonates in a less-than-holy manner through envious eyes. For this reason, accountability among leaders is paramount. The more we understand about accountability, the better off we will be.
When I was first in ministry, “accountability” was something reserved for ministers who had done something wrong. Admitting to what they did was considered “being accountable.” It was associated with demoralization and demotion, as most ministers were “sat down” for a period of time after confession.
Because no one wanted to go through the humiliation of “accountability,” it was often leadership protocol to “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Ministers would go through difficulties in silence because they feared misunderstanding or, worse yet, becoming “an example” to everyone around them. When you fear you’ll lose your ministry over an indiscretion (whether perceived or actual), there’s a greater temptation to suffer silently rather than rely on community support in difficult times.
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:24-25, NIV)
Edification through accountability
God has shown me the past few years that accountability starts long before we fall into moral failure or mental, emotional, or spiritual trouble. It begins when we are willing to be honest about the things in our lives that we skip over, thus presenting gaps in our personal and spiritual care. It starts when we let others stand where we need in our lives, offering important assistance and encouragement to complete the ministry assigned to us. This means accountability, rather than looking like public humiliation, is:
- Asking for help when you need it
- Working in ministry teams with other leaders rather than by yourself all the time
- Embracing support from other trustworthy leaders
- Taking personal inventory on motives and actions
- Admitting when mistakes are made
- Learning from mistakes
- Being able to trust your congregation/ministry body supports you as a leader
- Allowing others to step up to assist when necessary
- Taking a break or sitting down temporarily while you address serious issues
Not all failures in ministry are yours
Whenever anything major happens to or by someone in a ministry, the first thing many people do is judge the leadership. Forgetting that people have free will and often fail to follow the teachings or advice that anyone gives them, the assumption is that people do the things they do because they have bad ministers in their lives.
Then one of the Twelve—the one called Judas Iscariot—went to the chief priests and asked, “What are you willing to give me if I deliver Him over to you?” So they counted out for him thirty pieces of silver. From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand Him over. (Matthew 26:14-16, NIV)
Judas had the best leader in the history of humanity. There was no moral failing in Jesus. He never uttered a wrong word or misled in His teachings. Judas still loved money, betrayed Jesus, and then committed suicide. None of these things were “because” of Jesus. They had everything to do with Judas.
It’s tempting to assign the moral failings of those part of your ministry as your own. You will be a much better minister if you step back from such thinking and allow people the space to be responsible for their own actions.
As a seminary professor, I teach Early Church History about once every three years. My students are always most fascinated to learn about the Desert Fathers, a group of monastics who practiced extreme mortification of the flesh. As they sought greater spiritual insights through extreme fasts, long meditations, hard labor, physically uncomfortable quarters, and sometimes self-harm, some seemed to experience intense spiritual torment. While none of them might be seen in the “failure in ministry” club, they could have been far more effective if they’d taken a different approach.
I believe they experienced torment because they didn’t find a balance between their spiritual lives and their personal self-care. Their attempts to mortify the body left them weak, tired, ill, and unable to withstand spiritual warfare. As they tried to push their bodies beyond reasonable limits, they opened themselves up to any number of spirits and demons. What they did might have seemed spiritual, but it left them open to unseen spiritual forces that could have been avoided with a little self-care.
Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, Who is in you, Whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20, NIV)
Embracing our self-care boundaries
The dirty little secret about self-care: none of us like doing it. It’s all because self-care isn’t bubble baths and records playing in dimly lit rooms while eating chocolate. Self-care is attending to all the things that help us to be healthy, balanced individuals, like eating well, getting enough rest, exercising, and avoiding burnout. In the case of ministry, self-care is even more relevant. People are quick to pull on our time and attention, and days can quickly turn into long nights if we aren’t careful. Sure, there will be emergencies and circumstances that pull on our time and attention, but it’s also important to establish boundaries that help us to maintain well-being as often as possible. These include:
- Schedule regular days off every week
- Hold to personal scheduling inasmuch as such is possible
- Take at least one vacation week per year, even if you don’t leave town
- Take regular time with your spouse, your friends, both, or either/or
- Spend time by yourself
- Make time for hobbies you enjoy
Change your mind about failure in ministry
We ultimately feel like a failure in ministry when we think we ought to be somewhere we aren’t. Whether that “somewhere” is a physical location, spiritual destiny, popularity level, or financial attainment, the fact is we are measuring our standards of ministry by the wrong things. We all make mistakes; we all fail; and we all go through periods where we need to seek God for direction…but none of these things make us a failure in ministry work. If you are doing your best and following the ministry course God has for you, there’s no way you can fail. Learn to embrace what God wants to do through and within you, and there you will find contentment rather than a sense of failure.